HOUSTON — A Texas woman was convicted of murder Tuesday in the death of one of four children who died in a fire at her home day care after she left them alone with hot oil on the stove while she shopped at Target.
Neighbors said they could hear children crying inside the burning Houston home but couldn’t reach them. The fire killed 16-month-old Elias Castillo and three other children. Three more were seriously injured.
Jurors began hearing evidence in the punishment phase of Jessica Tata’s trial Tuesday afternoon, more than an hour after their verdict for a murder conviction was announced. They found Tata, 24, guilty of one count of felony murder.
Tata had no visible reaction as the guilty verdict was read. Some of Elias’ family and relatives of other victims present in the courtroom began to cry.
“We’re thankful for today’s verdict,” said Nancy Villanueva, one of Elias’ aunts. “We’re happy.”
Defense attorney Mike DeGeurin said he accepted the jury’s decision and would now focus on sentencing.
“She’s never lost sight of the real victims,” DeGeurin said of Tata. “She hasn’t forgotten that. It’s not all about her.”
Tata’s attorneys argued that she never intended to hurt the children, who ranged in age from 16 months to 3 years, and that she tried to save them. But prosecutors did not need to show she intended to harm the children, only that the deaths occurred because she put them in danger by leaving them alone. Under Texas law, a person can be convicted of felony murder if he or she committed an underlying felony and that action led to the death.